How to find the best deal when booking a hotel room

A recent survey found that if you really want to save money, you need to book with sites that offer “mystery deals."
by Herb Weisbaum /  / Updated 
Young woman using laptop, paying with credit card, travel booking
Booking a flight and hotel at the same time can result in significant savings.Westend61 / Getty Images
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Dozens of travel websites promise deals and discounts for hotel rooms, but can a few clicks on these sites really save you money? Checkbook.org, an independent non-profit consumer group, decided to find out.

Checkbook’s researchers analyzed more than 3,500 hotel rates on 18 different online travel agencies, plus hotel websites. They requested rates for stays of one night, three nights and seven nights in 46 U.S. cities and 12 foreign ones.

“Most booking options offered the same price for the same room,” Checkbook's Executive Editor Kevin Brasler told NBC News BETTER. "We were rarely offered a different price across any of these different booking sites or even from the hotel. We just found the same price offered over and over and over again.”

The key results from the Checkbook survey:

  • Except for a handful of specialty websites, there was “very little price variation” among most of the options. Checkbook’s researchers were offered the prevailing rate 85 percent of the time.
  • When rates did vary, the savings was typically less than $10 a night.
  • Checking Kayak or Trivago, aggregator sites that show listings from numerous travel websites, sometimes resulted in good deals.

I noticed this price parity when looking for a room at the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel and Conference Center in September. My search on Kayak resulted in the same price, $270 a night, on Kayak and nine other sites: CheapTickets, Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire, TripAdvisor, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, and Sheraton.

In its report, The Disappearing Hotel Bargain, Checkbook criticizes travel websites for misleading consumers with steep discounts based on “regular rates” that hotels seldom charge.

Checkbook criticizes travel websites for misleading consumers with steep discounts based on 'regular rates' that hotels seldom charge.

“They’re listing a price, crossing it out, and hyping a lower price — and often adding warnings like ‘Only two rooms left!’ or ‘19 other travelers are looking at this deal!’ Because the advertised higher price doesn’t represent a prevailing rate in fact, the lower price is the prevailing rate, as it’s available everywhere — we believe these tactics are deceptive,” Brasler said. “There’s no rush anyway. In our research we found rates tend to go down the longer we waited to book.”

TIP: No matter how you book, via online travel agency or through the hotel, check for discount rates that may apply, such as AAA or AARP. They may be lower than the initial “lowest price” rate offered by the website.

What’s going on here?

Most of the well-known online travel agencies are owned by just two companies Expedia (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Hotwire) and Booking Holdings, formerly Priceline Group (Agoda, Booking.com, Kayak, Priceline).

Checkbook believes this lack of competition hurts consumers. Expedia and Booking Holdings disagree. They say they are simply online marketers who display prices set by the hotels.

Representatives from both companies told NBC News BETTER that many hotel chains require parity agreements that prohibit them from undercutting the rate set by the hotel.

“We don’t set the prices, they set the prices,” said Leslie Cafferty, senior vice president of communications at Booking Holdings. “But the agreement is that they’ll list the same price wherever they list it. So, if they list the room at $100 a night on their website, then they will list it at $100 on our website.”

Dave McNamee, Expedia’s director of communications, offered a similar sentiment. “The value we offer our customers is matching travelers with the best hotel for their needs at the best price available for us to offer,” McNamee said in a statement.

Expedia suggested Checkbook found minimal price variation because they only looked at the base rates set by the hotels and did not log-in to take advantage of the deals offered to members.

“It is incredibly easy for travelers to save up to 10 percent or more on over 175,000 participating hotels just by simply signing up and logging in to Expedia.com,” McNamee told NBC News BETTER.

Checkbook’s Brasler told us they did not include these membership discounts in their analysis, but they did check what each site offered as “unlockable” rates — not otherwise available when searching the internet.

“We found sometimes these rates knocked off up to 10 percent from the prevailing rate. So, not exactly a game changer, but it’s worth checking for these discounts before clicking buy,” he said.

Expedia noted that bundling — booking a flight and hotel at the same time — can result in significant savings. A new option, Add-On Advantage, allows travelers to qualify for hotel discounts of up to 43 percent at any point before their trip, if they book a flight, car or package on Expedia.com, the company said.

TIP: Many sites let you set an alert, so you’ll be notified if the rate on a room you booked changes. If the price drops and you haven’t prepaid, you may be able to cancel without a penalty and rebook at the lower rate.

Mystery shopping can save you a bundle

Charlie Leocha, president and co-founder of the non-profit group Travelers United, says consumers can use online travel sites to do something they can’t do on a hotel website — compare prices across different lodging brands.

“This is where the Internet lets the free market really work on behalf of consumers,” Leocha said.

If you want to stay at a specific hotel and don’t care about comparison shopping, Leocha suggests going to the hotel’s website. By booking direct you may get free upgrades or expert perks.

If you really want to save money, you need to book with sites that offer “mystery deals,” where you don’t know the name of the hotel until your credit card purchased the room.

The survey found that the only way to consistently save a lot of money on hotel stays is to book a mystery room.

Checkbook’s survey found that “the only way to consistently save a lot of money” on hotel stays is to book a mystery room with Hotwire Hot Rate or Priceline Express Deal. They beat the prevailing rate offered by most other travel sites and hotels by about 38 percent, Checkbook found.

In head-to-head competition, Hotwire Hot Rate usually beat Priceline Express Deals. Of the 24 bookings Checkbook did this way, Hotwire had a lower price than Priceline 16 times, Priceline won five times and there were three ties.

“Booking this way is not as risky as you might assume,” Leocha told NBC News BETTER. “There are so many filters – it tells you the star level and the exact area you’re going to stay – that you can almost tell which one or two hotels you’re going to end up getting. I use the Priceline service and personally I average a savings of somewhere between 30 and 50 percent.”

If you want to stay at a specific property and don’t want to risk a mystery-rate booking, Checkbook’s shopping tests found that the websites goSeek and SnapTravel were the next-cheapest options.

Checkbook also provides advice on how to avoid trouble when booking a mystery room.

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